Emily Hobhouse

Emily Hobhouse

Emily Hobhouse, the daughter of the Reginald Hobhouse and Caroline Trelawny, was born in Liskeard, Cornwall on 9th April, 1860. Educated at home, Emily lived with her parents until she was thirty-five.

After the death of her father in 1895, Emily became more involved in social work and political reform. With her brother, Leonard Hobhouse, she was active member of the Adult Suffrage Society.

Emily, like many members of the radical wing of the Liberal Party, was opposed to the Boer War. Over the first few weeks of the war Emily spoke at several public meetings where she denounced the activities of the British government.

In late 1900 Emily was sent details of how women and children were being treated by the British Army. She later wrote: "poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them".

In October 1900, Emily formed the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children. An organisation set up: "To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations". Except for members of the Society of Friends, very few people were willing to contribute to this fund.

Hobhouse arrived in South Africa on 27th December, 1900. After meeting Alfred Milner, she gained permission to visit the concentration camps that had been established by the British Army. However, Lord Kitchener objected to this decision and she was now told she could only go to Bloemfontein.

She left Cape Town on 22nd January, 1901, and arrived at Bloemfontein two days later. There were at the time eighteen hundred people in the camp. Emily discovered "that there was a scarcity of essential provision and that the accommodation was wholly inadequate." When she complained about the lack of soap she was told, "soap is an article of luxury". She nevertheless succeeded ultimately to have it listed as a necessity, together with straw and kettles in which to boil the drinking water.

Over the next few weeks Emily visited several camps to the south of Bloemfontein, including Norvalspont, Aliwal North, Springfontein, Kimberley and Orange River. She was also allowed to visit Mafeking. Everywhere she directed the attention of the authorities to the inadequate sanitary accommodation and inadequate rations.

By the time that Emily returned to Bloemfontein in March 1901, the population had grown considerably. She later wrote: " The population had redoubled and had swallowed up the results of improvements that had been effected. Disease was on the increase and the sight of the people made the impression of utter misery. Illness and death had left their marks on the faces of the inhabitants. Many that I had left hale and hearty, of good appearance and physically fit, had undergone such a change that I could hardly recognize them."

Hobhouse argued that Kitchener’s "Scorched Earth" policy included the systematic destruction of crops and slaughtering of livestock, the burning down of homesteads and farms, and the poisoning of wells and salting of fields - to prevent the Boers from resupplying from a home base. Civilians were then forcibly moved into the concentration camps. Although this tactic had been used by Spain (Ten Years' War) and the United States (Philippine-American War), it was the first time that a whole nation had been systematically targeted.

Emily decided that she had to return to England in an effort to persuade the Marquess of Salisbury and his government to bring an end to the British Army's scorched earth and concentration camp policy. David Lloyd George and Charles Trevelyan took up the case in the House of Commons and accused the government of "a policy of extermination" directed against the Boer population. William St John Fremantle Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War argued that the interned Boers were "contented and comfortable" and stated that everything possible was being done to ensure satisfactory conditions in the camps.

The vast majority of MPs showed little sympathy to the plight of the Boers. Hobhouse later wrote: "The picture of apathy and impatience displayed here, which refused to lend an ear to undeserved misery, contrasted sadly with the scenes of misery in South Africa, still fresh in my mind. No barbarity in South Africa was as severe as the bleak cruelty of an apathetic parliament."

In August, 1901, the British government established a commission headed by Millicent Fawcett to visit South Africa. While the Fawcett Commission was carrying out the investigation, the government published its own report. According to the New York Times: “The War Office has issued a four-hundred-page Blue Book of the official reports from medical and other officers on the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa. The general drift of the report attributes the high mortality in these camps to the dirty habits of the Boers, their ignorance and prejudices, their recourse to quackery, and their suspicious avoidance of the British hospitals and doctors.”

The Fawcett Commission confirmed almost everything that Emily Hobhouse had reported. After the war a report concluded that 27,927 Boers had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the concentration camps. In all, about one in four of the Boer inmates, mostly children, died. However, the South African historian, Stephen Burridge Spies argues in Methods of Barbarism: Roberts and Kitchener and Civilians in the Boer Republics (1977) that this is an under-estimate of those who died in the camps.

Hobhouse decided to return to South Africa but was warned by the authorities they would refuse permission for her to visit the camps. When Hobhouse arrived in Cape Town on Sunday 27th October, 1901, she was not allowed to leave her ship. In poor health, she decided to recuperate in the mountains of Savoy. It was while she was there that Hobhouse heard that the Boer leaders had signed the Peace Treaty of Vereeniging.

Hobhouse was also an opponent of British involvement in the First World War. On 3rd September, 1916, she wrote to a friend: "Think of our beloved fatherland, think of beautiful Italy, of France and of Germany, all of them working at full capacity to produce weapons of war and destruction. It seems as if we have reached the end of our civilization. It is all too hideous for words".

In 1921 the people of South Africa raised £2,300 and sent it to Hobhouse in recognition for the work she had done on their behalf during the Boer War. The money was sent to her with the explicit mandate that she had to buy a small house for herself somewhere along the coast of Cornwall. On 18th May, 1921, she replied: "I find it impossible to give expression to the feelings that overpowered me when I heard of the surprise you had prepared for me. My first impulse was not to accept any gift, or otherwise to devote it to some or other public end. But after having read and reread your letter, I have decided to accept your gift in the same simple and loving spirit in which it was sent to me."

Hobhouse purchased a house at St. Ives. On Christmas Day, 1921, she wrote to the organisers of the fund: "To you I owe everything that surrounds me now and that gives me a feeling of comfort and rest and security - the warmth of my little room - and the feeling of being at home. When I look back upon the year that has passed, I marvel more and more at everything that you and your people have done to ensure my happiness and my welfare".

Emily Hobhouse died in London on 8th June, 1926.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Emily Hobhouse wrote about how she decided to visit South Africa during the Boer War.

It was late in the summer of 1900 that I first learnt of the hundreds of Boer women that became impoverished and were left ragged by our military operations. That the poor women who were being driven from pillar to post, needed protection and organized assistance. And from that moment I was determined to go to South Africa in order to render assistance to them

(2) Emily Hobhouse, letter to the people of South Africa (1913)

I had never seen your country nor did I know anyone of you. It was therefore no personal link of friendship that brought me here. Nor was it a political motive of any description. I came quite naturally - in obedience to the feeling of unity or oneness of womanhood and of those noble traditions, characteristic of the life of the English people, in which I was nurtured and which I inherited from times immemorial. It is when the community is shaken to its foundations, that abysmal depths of privation call to each other and that a deeper unity of humanity evinces itself.

(3) Emily Hobhouse wrote in October 1900 to Stephen Gladstone about the objectives of the Relief Fund for South African Women and Children.

To feed, clothe, harbour and save women and children - Boer, English and other - who were left destitute and ragged as a result of the destruction of property, the eviction of families or other incidents resulting from the military operations.

(4) Emily Hobhouse, report on Bloemfontein Concentration Camp (January, 1901)

When the eight, ten or twelve people who lived in the bell tent were squeezed into it to find shelter against the heat of the sun, the dust or the rain, there was no room to stir and the air in the tent was beyond description, even though the flaps were rolled up properly and fastened. Soap was an article that was not dispensed. The water supply was inadequate. No bedstead or mattress was procurable. Fuel was scarce and had to be collected from the green bushes on the slopes of the kopjes by the people themselves. The rations were extremely meagre and when, as I frequently experienced, the actual quantity dispensed fell short of the amount prescribed, it simply meant famine.

(5) Emily Hobhouse tells the story of the young Lizzie van Zyl who died in the Bloemfontein concentration camp

She was a frail, weak little child in desperate need of good care. Yet, because her mother was one of the 'undesirables' due to the fact that her father neither surrendered nor betrayed his people, Lizzie was placed on the lowest rations and so perished with hunger that, after a month in the camp, she was transferred to the new small hospital. Here she was treated harshly. The English disposed doctor and his nurses did not understand her language and, as she could not speak English, labelled her an idiot although she was mentally fit and normal.

(6) Emily Hobhouse, report on concentration camps in South Africa (March, 1901)

The new scorched-earth policy of the military authorities during March and April, brought a large number of extra families into the camps which resulted in a considerable increase in their population. In many instances I was an eyewitness of what took place. I saw families huddled up close to the railway line near Warrenton and Fourteen Streams; I saw an overcrowded train crawling along to Kimberley throughout a whole long night; I saw people, old and young, bundled in open trucks under a scorching sun near a station building without anything to eat. At midnight they were transported to empty tents where they groped about in the dark, looking for their little bundles. They went to sleep without any provision having been made for them and without anything to eat or to drink. I saw crowds of them along railway lines in bitterly cold weather, in pouring rain - hungry, sick, dying and dead. I never had any doubt that every female countryman of mine would feel just as I did at the sight of all this - with a profound feeling of compassion, burning with the desire to alleviate the suffering.

(7) The New York Times (16th November, 1901)

The War Office has issued a four-hundred-page Blue Book of the official reports from medical and other officers on the conditions in the concentration camps in South Africa. The general drift of the report attributes the high mortality in these camps to the dirty habits of the Boers, their ignorance and prejudices, their recourse to quackery, and their suspicious avoidance of the British hospitals and doctors.

(8) Emily Hobhouse, letter to Mrs. M. T. Steyn (22nd August, 1902)

When the first report of the surrender reached me, I sat alone on the shore of a lake in the mountains of the Savoy. A newspaper brought me the news which was written in big capital letters. I was so deeply moved that I sat sobbing like a child for a considerable time, for it appeared to me that all that we also fought for, had been lost. I had no knowledge of any details and could only hope that the men who, throughout the whole struggle, showed such clear insight into all matters bearing upon the war, would have retained that ability up to the end. And that is what happened. Now that I know the facts, I feel consoled. By surrendering everything, they will gain everything. Their protest is supported by solid facts. Their strength and bravery have been proved and even although they have laid down their arms, they will nevertheless complete the task for which they took up arms. I fully believe "all things will come to those who will but wait".